Celebrating Mass a few steps from the spot traditionally believed to the birthplace of Jesus, Pope Francis said that the way society treats its young reveals its moral character.
Children are a "diagnostic sign, a marker indicating the health of families, society and the entire world," the pope said May 25 in Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity. "Wherever children are accepted, loved, cared for and protected, the family is healthy, society is more healthy and the world is more human."
The Bethlehem Mass was the only Mass for local Christians during Pope Francis' two days in the West Bank and Israel, the second and third legs of a three-day journey to the Holy Land. The Mass was limited to about 10,000 people, but the crowd was enthusiastic, and many arrived while it was still dark to get a spot.
The altar was set up in front of a large mural of the Nativity, but in place of the Wise Men were the three popes who had previously visited the Holy Land -- Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Pope Francis told those gathered in the square that "children need to be welcomed and defended, from the moment of their conception."
He said "all too many children continue to be exploited, maltreated, enslaved, prey to violence and illicit trafficking. Still too many children live in exile, as refugees, at times lost at sea, particularly in the waters of the Mediterranean," he said, in apparent reference to African refugees trying to make their way to Europe.
"Today, in acknowledging this, we feel shame before God, before God who became a child."
Pope Francis spoke of children used as soldiers and as models for fraudulent charitable appeals.
"Are we perhaps people who use fine and pious words, yet exploit pictures of poor children in order to make money?" he asked.
After the Mass, the pope met with Palestinian refugee children from four different camps in the West Bank. He told them not to let the past hinder them, but to always look to the future.
Before the Mass, as the pope's helicopter flew over Manger Square on its way to the helipad, the crowd cheered wildly, waving flags and banners. A group of Polish pilgrims, accompanied by a guitar player, sang religious songs outside the fenced-in area on the edges of the square, and another group sang in Spanish. On a stage to the side of the square seminarians sang religious songs in Arabic to choreographed movements. They were replaced later by a youth choir, which sang as the pope arrived.
Locals said the pope's arrival strengthened them.
"We are very few Christians here," said Majd Banoura, 57, of Beit Sahour, West Bank. "It gives us strength when the pope comes here. It is a sign that this is the land of the Palestinians, and it gives Christians strength to stay here in this land."
The pope smiled broadly as he greeted people in the popemobile, which drove along a path where he could greet the maximum number of people. The crowd released white balloons and welcomed him with traditional trilling. Parents held their children aloft on their shoulders so they could catch a glimpse of the pope.
Quiet fell over the crowd as the Mass began in Arabic. At the last few minutes of the Mass, the Muslim call to prayer could be heard from the loudspeakers at the mosque bordering the square, and for a moment the call and the closing songs of the Mass intertwined.
Although Israel gave out some 500 permits to people in the Gaza Strip to travel to Bethlehem for the Mass, only 24 people received tickets to the Mass, said two Catholics in attendance. At least two people from Gaza said they thought Israelis did not give permits to entire families out of fear that they would remain in the West Bank.
"I love to be in Gaza and don't want to leave Gaza even though it is hard. Christians have to be strengthened in Gaza," said 15-year-old Bolos Swelem, who was the only one in his nuclear family to receive a permit and had come to the Mass with his aunt. "I am here to see the pope and ask him to pray for us, for our life to be made easier."
Regina Carreon, 47, a Filipino working in Tel Aviv, was among the first to arrive at the square, with five buses of Filipino caregivers. She said she had not slept all night.
"It was our target to get in the front," she said. "No one was here but us Filipinos. I would stand here even in the sun to see the pope. I feel so blessed. I don't feel tired, I just feel very good and calm. I will cherish this moment for the rest of my life."
Local Scout groups helped with the organization of the seating and crowd control, passing out bottles of water, prayer booklets for the Mass and Palestinian and Vatican flags.
""I think everyone here is happy," said Yousef Musalem, 42, of Bethlehem, a Scout leader who also helped with the Mass for Pope Benedict. "This is a time to pray with the pope. Everybody is in a good mood."